One of these things is not like the other: How global climate change is different from other social change issues.

“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”
-Mohandas K Gandhi

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
-Nelson Mandela

Human-made global climate change different from every other social change issue in history, and behaving otherwise will lead to ruin.

The quotes at the beginning of this article are wonderful quotes, and the lessons they teach provide excellent advice for every human working to build a better world. So many of the problems we face stem from gargantuan power structures that work very hard to convey the message that change is impossible – that the way it is is the way it must always be.

The same is true for human-caused global climate change. Modern civilization has been built on fossil fuels, and the topic of energy production has become so entrenched in politics, that people feel their very identities are tied up in the issue.

The same has been true in the struggles for racial equality, and for gender equality, and for economic equality, and for a hundred other causes. It has also been true of the environmental movement that arose in the twentieth century. And while there is still much work to be done, all of these movements have made incredible progress. Slavery and segregation fell. Women have equal rights. Rivers are no longer catching on fire on a regular basis, and the edifices of unequal treatment and protections for homosexuals are crumbling fast.

Global climate change feels like the Next Big Struggle, and there’s a way in which it is. If only it were so simple. Global climate change is unique in that once we “win”, and the proverbial dust settles, we will be in the midst of an on-going warming event. Even if we get global fossil fuel emissions to zero in the next ten years, the warming that is already happening will have pushed every feedback loop scientists have been fearing into high gear. The arctic ice is already melting. The permafrost is already rotting. Vegetation is already suffering from heat and drought. Oceanic phytoplankton are already declining in number, and water is already evaporating more due to the rise in temperature.

Lately I’ve seen a number of posts, often by climate activists, with inspirational quotes about social change from people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, and others, and all of these quotes have something in common – they’re about social change.

Climate change is a sticky issue because, of course, part of it IS about social change. It’s a problem caused by our collective action AND our collective inaction. It’s a result of a social, economic, and political status quo, and that makes it similar to the fights against Apartheid, slavery, segregation, women’s rights, gay rights, and other forms of bigotry, discrimination, and abuse. Ultimately, how we vote is what has allowed us to get to this point, and ultimately, public opinion will sway towards reality, and change will occur.

And as Nelson Mandela famously said, it will probably seem impossible right up until it’s “done”.

But that’s the problem with climate change – it will never be “done”. Not in our lifetimes, and not in the lifetimes of our children, or our grandchildren. Even if we get every person on the planet working together to end fossil carbon emissions, the problem will continue without us. But we’re years, if not decades away from that kind of collective effort, and we’ve already waited almost half a century beyond the point when we really had a pretty solid case that human activity is warming the planet.

Most people who have been paying attention to the issue have at least a faint idea that there are feedback loops that can come into play, but if you weren’t aware of this phenomenon, there are numerous phenomena that can be caused by a small rise in temperature that cause more warming in turn, which carries on in a chain reaction.

These feedback loops are already in progress, at this point. Our albedo is lower, there’s more water vapor in the air, the permafrost is melting and releasing methane, and we’ve already seen the Amazon Rainforest – one of the biggest terrestrial carbon sinks – have two droughts so severe that it became a carbon SOURCE.

That means that while the social change aspect of this is taking time, just like ALL social change, the planet is moving on without us.

Changing where we get energy and how we use it is not enough. It’s not nearly enough.

Beyond that, simply not possible if we don’t take into account that the planet has ALREADY CHANGED, and by the time we get our act together, it will have changed EVEN MORE.

We’re fighting amongst ourselves about whether there is a battle to be fought, or when it should be fought, or HOW it should be fought, or even whether there is an enemy to fight.

We’ve been fighting amongst ourselves for fifty years, but after all that fighting is done – after the social change is achieved – then the real fight will be just beginning. Then we have to figure out how to survive.

Edit: Here’s another way I put it in conversation with a friend – Think of it as being like cracks in the road. With racism, and with other such issues, we repair the cracks. We improve what the road is made of so that the cracks don’t happen as often, and aren’t as big. We do maintenance, and over time, we have better roads. If we ignore it, it gets worse, usually in different ways, but it’s all about the road.

With climate change, we’re working on the road, when the ground the road is built on is falling away.

This blog is mostly about how we can work on building a bridge under the road as the ground beneath it falls away, so that the whole road doesn’t collapse.
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